7 best off-to-college cars

Mazda3 i Sport

Slotting in at $16,725, the Mazda3 i Sport is among the less expensive of our campus transports. The 2010 Mazda3 is the second generation of this wildly popular small car. The 148-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine that powers the i Sport gets an EPA mpg rating of 25 city and 33 highway. The anti-lock brake system includes emergency braking assist and electronic brake force distribution. Mazda3's cumulative crash test score is 23 stars.

With its contemporary styling and fun-to-drive attitude, the new Mazda3 should be a hit on campuses. All i Sports arrive with height-adjustable driver's seat, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, full power accessories, air conditioning and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.

The Mazda3's suspension emphasizes athletic handling as opposed to a pliant ride. The interior is more upscale than one might expect at this price point. At 11.8 cubic feet, trunk space is a little cramped, but about average for a small car. Passengers should have adequate room.

Mini Cooper

By far the best fuel economy in our group, the $19,200 Mini Cooper boasts an EPA mpg rating of 28 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. Small and wiry, it captured 22 stars in our crash-test measure. A car that makes you smile even before climbing behind the wheel, the Cooper is as much fun to drive as anything on the road. Its tidy, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine generates just 118 horsepower, but it only has a little over 2,500 pounds to move.

Tuned for optimum handling, the four-wheel independent suspension may prove too stiff for parents, but the kids will love it. From the traffic light it accelerates with dogged determination. Stability control, traction control, emergency braking assist and electronic brake force distribution are all standard. The retro styling is carried from the exterior to the inside. The large round speedometer dominates the center of the dashboard. Rear-seat room is stingy, as is the trunk.

At best the Cooper only seats four, but it is loaded with standard features such as height-adjustable front seats, full power accessories, remote keyless entry, tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack. A small car with a big heart, the Mini Cooper seems right at home on campus.

Mitsubishi Lancer ES

Just squeaking into this lineup, the Lancer ES gathered a total of 22 stars in our crash test measure. Likewise its estimated EPA fuel economy barely qualified with a rating of 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. Its $17,435 sticker puts it squarely in the center of the pack in price. The Lancer appears content to do and be just enough to put it in the running in many areas. A competent sedan, the ES blends value with decent performance, comfort and quality, but it doesn't go to the head of the class in any of these areas.

Attracting fans through its handsome styling, the Lancer possesses some personality. Its 152-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine is a bit noisy, but its get-up-and-go won't embarrass you when the light goes green. The Lancer ES takes safety a little further than the others on this list by adding a driver-side knee air bag, as well as disc brakes on all four wheels. It rides on a fully independent suspension.

Furnished for five, the cabin is roomy and the seats are comfortable. The gauges and controls are well placed and uncomplicated. Standard features include full power accessories, remote keyless entry, cruise control, tilt steering wheel with redundant audio controls and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack. It probably won't wow you, but the Lancer ES earned its way on this list over better-selling cars.

Nissan Sentra 2.0 S

Planting Nissan's flag in this group is the $17,680 Sentra 2.0 S. Its 140-horsepower, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine uses a six-speed manual transmission to funnel output to the front wheels. This marriage is good enough to earn the 2.0 S an EPA mpg rating of 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the open road. The cumulative crash test score is 23 stars.

Scads of interior room highlight Sentra's cabin. Larger than most of the others on this list, the trunk holds 13.1 cubic feet of cargo. The split rear seat folds forward, increasing cargo capacity. Front and rear legroom are also generous, fit and finish in the cabin is above average, seating is supportive, and even taller drivers and passengers will enjoy adequate headroom.

The standard equipment list is brimming with features such as full power accessories, cruise control, tilt steering wheel with redundant audio controls, suede door trim and a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack. It's not flashy, but the Sentra 2.0 S is a dependable workhorse.

Editor's note: Automobiles that have yet to be tested by NHTSA were not considered. In most cases we have identified specific trim levels because some have side-impact air bags as standard equipment, but less expensive versions might not. Side-impact air bags are essential for higher crash test scores, particularly in smaller cars, and all the cars on our list were tested with front side-impact air bags.


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